I have the day off as it is Memorial Day but I do want to share with you one of the most moving and amazing experiences of my life that occurred after the 6 pm Mass last night in the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Ambassador Callista Gingrich and her husband Newt were also at this Mass and I asked them afterwards if they knew the church housed an astonishing relic – the left foot of St. Mary Magdalene.
I brought them to the shrine and explained the story (which I had recently researched for one of my “Joan’s Rome” videos – see story below). As we were about to leave, the sacristan came up to me and, with a huge smile and holding a key in one hand, asked if we’d like to see the relic up close. Well, of course we wanted to!
He opened the shrine and then – the truly amazing moment of the evening! – he took the Cellini reliquary out, showed it to us and handed it to me! What is not visible when the reliquary is inside the shrine is the glass-covered opening that reveals the bones of Mary Magdalene’s foot!
Photos by Amb. Gingrich:
I held the reliquary for dear life and slowly, prayerfully, moved one hand across the top of the reliquary. I think my breathing slowed as I held the relic! Several others were standing near us in total silence, also relishing uniqueness of the moment.
Just writing about this experience leaves me breathless again.
A WELL-KEPT SECRET: ROME’S RELIQUARY WITH FOOT OF MARY MAGDALENE
San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini – St. John the Baptist of the Florentines – is known as the regional church for expatriates from Florence whose patron saint is John the Baptist. There was a flourishing expat Florentine community in Rome in the mid-15th century that featured the bankers and artists for which the city was famous. That expat Florentine community was concentrated on a bend of the Tiber river where the church stands today.
San Giovanni was built for the first Medici Pope, Leo X, who started a competition for the church’s construction. Great numbers of famous artists participated in the project but the building was on-again off-again for a few centuries. Two of the most celebrated artists are buried here – Carlo Maderno and Francesco Borromini.
Only in recent years, however, has San Giovanni dei Fiorentini made a singular claim to fame: it possesses relics of the foot of St. Mary Magdalene that rest in a shrine to the left of the main sanctuary.
Historians seem to agree that Mary Magdalene died and was buried in Ephesus and that, given historical vicissitudes, her body – or parts of it, what we will call relics – was brought to Constantinople, then to the south of France and, finally Rome.
How the relics got to the south of France seems to be the biggest mystery – not all legends agree. One, in fact, says Mary Magdalene lived in a cave as a hermitess in the south of France where she died.
The historical account found in the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini says her body was sent by ship from Sainte Baume in Provence to Rome where her left foot was removed according to the Greek tradition that this is always the first foot that rises when you enter the after life. Her foot came to rest in St. Peter’s Basilica with other passion relics.
For many years, pilgrims who came to Rome to visit the tomb of Peter would first stop to venerate the foot of St Mary Magdalene who was the first person to enter the tomb of the Risen One. This foot was first kept in a precious reliquary of Benvenuto Cellini.
More historical vicissitudes and the foot finally came to rest in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini – but only in 1984! – where it was buried away in a closet with other forgotten relics and historical pieces.
Amazingly enough it was discovered only in the year 2000 when San Giovanni began work on its Museum of Sacred Art!